Media Magnet #3: MP3 Meets Its Match

During my recent trip to Costa Rica, a land where potholes look more like impact craters and rainforest guides can smell molting snakes (but apparently not actually see them), I tried to avoid thinking about work altogether. But technology has a funny way of creeping up on you.

After a jaunt through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, I found myself sitting in the sun, watching the clouds roll by, and listening to a CD on my portable player. Not just any CD, however, but one I made myself shortly before leaving for the trip.

The disc was a live recording of ex-Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's band Ratdog from Halloween, one I had downloaded from the Net. Not too unusual -- Ratdog's one of those band which allows its shows to be recorded and posted on the Net in an easy-to-download digital music format. But not the format you might think.

Typically you might download some MP3 files, convert them to AIFF, and then record those onto an audio CD. The only problem with MP3, however, is that it is a "lossy" compression scheme -- that is, one that must throw out musical data from the high and low ends of our hearing in order to achieve its small size. When you expand those files to put on an audio CD, they will not sound as good as the original tracks, because the information just isn't there.

Enter SHN, a file format gaining popularity with fans of live music.

SHN (or shortened) files only offer about 2:1 compression (unlike the 10:1 ratio common with MP3), but SHN files are lossless -- in every way the same as the source files from which they were made. Of course, with less compression, the files are also much larger -- a full shortened disc can take up about 400MB -- so they're not exactly quick downloads. But with high-speed DSL and cable modems at home (and those blessed high-speed lines we've got at work), waiting several hours for a download while you sleep is much quicker -- and often more reliable -- than setting up and completing a CD trade by mail.

It's also a great way for a single source (or "seed") to get out to hundreds of people in a hurry. Often, a show will be transferred from DAT and encoding in SHN format just days after taking place -- perfect for us music junkies who can't wait to hear Phish's latest version of "Chalkdust Torture" or "You Enjoy Myself." As any music collector knows, you can never have too much of the same thing.

The software you'll need to take advantage of this great-sounding technology is called Shorten for Macintosh, which can expand SHN files to either AIFF or WAV formats, but only compresses WAV files. The free download is still in an early stage of development, but is very stable--not to mention that it's currently the only choice for Mac users when it comes to SHN. Remember, however, that you can't play an SHN file like you would an MP3 -- it must be expanded for listening or recording onto a CD.

A community that supports this high-quality musical format has risen under the name of Etree.org. In the past few months, FTP servers filled with SHN files have become as common as UFO sightings in a trailer park -- more than you can count. At Etree.org you can sign up for a mailing list to keep you abreast of the shows available on each server, and how to access them.

Some sites offer a general login and password, while other site operators require you send your name, email and IP addresses, and connection type before handing out a login. In either case, getting into sites, which typically offer only 2 or 3 simultaneous downloads, can be a challenge. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules of the road (such as minimum times between retrying sites) before jumping in -- otherwise, you might find yourself banned from some servers that have great music to share.

If you're an audiophile who's into any one of the growing number of bands that allow fans to record their live concerts, SHN is the way to go. The quality is strikingly better than MP3, and the long download times are another example of patience paying off. As Jerry Garcia used to sing, "Man, oh man, oh friend of mine, all good things in all good time."

Macworld Assistant Editor JONATHAN SEFF may spend more time downloading music off the Net than he does listening to it. He writes about storage and multimedia topics monthly in his Media Magnet column on Macworld.com.

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